Can “Mere Christianity” stem the tide of societal dissolution?
Craig Carter (not without some impassioned campaigning by the American Reformer staff on Twitter) wrote a thoughtful piece back in November 2022 on liberal democracy vis-à-vis Christian Nationalism from a Baptist perspective. A few highlights: “But what if I told you that liberal democracy only works in nations that recognize natural law as true, which historically means almost exclusively Christian nations?” Liberal democracy has “worked” for a while, says Carter, because of the residual conditions of Christendom. “But can we not all agree on the existence of God, the existence of a moral law, and the need to base law on human nature? No? Well, we won’t be able to keep liberal democracy.”1 And so,
Liberal democracy needs Christianity, or it collapses into anarchy. The state requires a healthy Christian church that does evangelism and discipleship effectively. Only those able to control their own desires and impose discipline on themselves make adequate citizens for a liberal democratic nation. Belief in God and a moral order is necessary as the foundation of a free society.
Predictably, then, “As individuals become more atomized and less personally disciplined, the need for social controls increases.”
This is all fairly unobjectionable, as far as it goes, but also not unique to liberal democratic regimes. Any regime requires a healthy Christian church to direct men to God and virtue. And this is part of the point.
A just regime is not merely neutral or indifferent toward higher truths, toward religion. Indifference by the temporal power toward the spiritual power may actually harm true religion and religious vibrancy because indifference (neutrality) relegates religion to the sidelines. Under liberal democratic regimes with a high level of plurality—something relentlessly fostered by all western liberal democratic nations—neutrality is praised as a cure to religious conflict. But when all religions are leveled and further categorized as one among many subsidiary, voluntary associations, the persuasive, pedagogical influence of true religion, of the church, is increasingly diminished. That is, in a sense, by design.2
At the same time, the temporal power suffers for absence of a central cult. Laws, too, are supposed to lead men gradually to virtue. This is right and inevitable. But within a pluralistic playing field, what mechanism can temporal power use to select the undergirding morality to inform its laws?
Now, Carter (or Andrew Walker) will answer, “natural law, of course.” This is basically correct. The question, however, is how natural law is known and taught, especially according to secondary conclusions (i.e., specific applications) which are not immediately ascertainable to all men equally. In a sense, the natural law is known; in another sense, it is learned. John Owen and Johannes Althusius, among others, instructed that the best way to arrive at a fully-orbed understanding and use of the natural law is through the study of good human laws that already reflect higher law, through the teaching of the church, and through scripture.
The problem with regard to how natural law will determine the state’s governing morality is 1) people aren’t great at grasping and applying the natural law; and 2) the temporal power needs the church to promulgate the summary of the natural law republished in the Decalogue as scripture as well as those parts of special revelation that bolster understanding of the natural order. Positing an absolute bifurcation between church and state–far beyond a proper recognition of their separate realms of authority–usually goes hand in hand with an absolute bifurcation between scripture and natural law.3 Neither antithesis helps us faithfully apply natural law today. Also, 3) the particular instantiations of natural law are necessarily contextualized by the polity and culture in which they are applied. If said polity is not already conditioned by a central, governing morality then the extent to which natural law supplies authoritative guidance will be limited, abstract, and largely anemic.
Further, given that the temporal power, the state, receives power from God, it cannot completely ignore revelation delivered in scripture, even though it is true that not all aspects of special revelation are applicable or actionable by the temporal power. The state must recognize—not necessarily enforce—all revelation promulgated by the Great Author of the power it has received, even if a large share of that revelation pertains to higher ends beyond temporal happiness.
Since the state is not competent to interpret scripture itself, it must defer to the instruction of the church, even with regard to natural law. Because of the fall, nature is not totally debased in essence, even though it is deteriorating, so to speak. If nature is not perfected by grace, without the correction of grace, it will continue to deteriorate. In other words, if the temporal power (nature) and the spiritual power (grace) are completely separated and the former is secularized, the temporal power (state) will increasingly fail to acknowledge and perform even natural duties according to natural revelation. Grace does not abrogate nature but perfects it.
Carter knows well that the two modes of revelation presuppose one another, and that this affects interpretation of each. An absolute bifurcation of the two is problematic for each, but especially for the natural. The natural revelational-order is increasingly recognizable via the aid of special revelation (grace), at least as to the fullness, significance and telos of what is naturally known. Hence, natural revelation is better stewarded and employed with the aid of supernatural revelation. The same goes for church and state. The state will perform poorly, even according to natural law, when it is utterly detached from the sanctifying influence of the church, the guardian of the deposit of truth. There is no hypothetical scenario where a secularized state 1) gives hearing to church teaching, and 2) performs natural duties for the temporal common good. Such an arrangement is epistemologically contradictory, we might say, and never anywhere demonstrated at scale.
Even as Carter tracks the demise of liberal democracy as it has drifted from Christian influence, he misses that the nature and logic of liberal democracy itself—not just democracy in the strict sense, but liberal democracy—necessitates this outcome. This is so primarily because liberal democracy formally detaches nature from grace, presuming to rule according to nature alone.
Liberal democracy needs Christianity to succeed, but liberal democracy, via its fundamentally voluntarist ethos (which materializes as state-mandated religious indifference) is structurally and ideologically conditioned to marginalize Christianity.4 The suicide identified by Carter is always baked into the liberal democratic cake, and the remedy (as I see it), viz., formal church establishment, is precluded both by Carter and the socio-political model he defends.
Now, if by “liberal democracy” all Carter intends to invoke is a particular political organization or regime structure—he equates it with “parliamentary democracy” at one point—then the above critique can be softened. But Carter is not limiting his case merely to governmental structure. He admits that “Liberal democracy as an Enlightenment philosophy knows nothing of universals, teleology, or God. It is an attempt to formulate laws that maximize individual freedom.” Of course, this philosophy necessarily influences governmental structure in such a way that the animating philosophical convictions are reinforced. Again, Carter’s solution to the tendency just described is to reinject liberal democracy with nature and nature’s God. This is simply not enough to turn the tide. Perhaps, a specific established denomination is not necessary either; perhaps, it would not suit the American people anyway, at least not at the national level. But, for the reasons above, an established (i.e., legally and politically favored) Christianity is the bare minimum necessary for what Carter and I both want. He’s willing to frustrate the licentious desires of atheists and libertines, but only on the basis of natural law.
Again, this amounts to a kind of appeal to neutrality that ignores the extent to which an understanding and application of the natural law must be channeled through particular cultural traditions, contextualized prudence, and, ultimately, the wisdom and revelation of a particular faith. There is no return to mere natural law governance because such a thing does not actually exist, and as I’ve written before, such governance did not characterize our own country at its inception.
In some ways, my argument here is a sort of complimentary, scaled version of Clifford Humphrey’s latest argument in First Things. There he (rightly) questions the merely Christian model of several Christian colleges, some of which are beginning to exhibit serious problems. What is needed, he says, is denominational, confessional distinctiveness. This isn’t a “silver bullet against mission drift,” but the “vital element is an intentional ethos informed by a definitive interpretation of Scripture that can be embodied in normative and formative practices.” This is true of nations too. At some point, the natural law must be made concrete, inserted into real human life in real context, and applied. This, I maintain, is impossible without some kind of discernible tradition of Christianity governing that process.
What Carter regrets is western mission drift. A “merely Christian” residue held it off for a while but would be wholly inadequate in a restoration project. It is no coincidence that less than 100 years after the disestablishment of Massachusetts, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a native of that state, was wantonly dismissing the light and law of nature from the nation’s highest court. Mere Christian influence was alive and well at the time, but the authority of particular Protestant traditions had been edged out of public life.
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